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Norms in the Margins and Margins of the Norm

The Social Construction of Illegality


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Abstracts Panel 5

Panel organizer: Karen Tranberg Hansen (Northwestern University, USA).

Norms, Networks, and Informality in the Global South: Unmapping Urban Space

Since the ‘informal sector’ term was coined in the early 1970s, the economic and political contexts in which research on this topic first emerged have changed profoundly. Shifts in the global political economy have altered production processes and market policies, giving rise to new research questions concerning the experiences of ongoing economic transformations across the world. In much of the urban Global South, a culture of informality with specific operational principles has become pervasive (Hansen 2001). In effect, urban informality comprises an organizing logic that shapes activities and transactions of individuals and groups, the nature and scope of networks as well as relations between persons and institutions and their individual and institutional linkages.
As an organizing logic (Roy 2005) informality constantly challenges the norms that undergird legal rules, unmapping spatial demarcations and zoning laws, among other things, in urban settings, continuously changing, negotiating, marking off or reconstructing the rules of the game.  As a result, socio-spatial relations are both object and subject in the construction of landscapes of opportunity and constraint. In the process, legal, illegal, and extra-legal activities, transactions, networks, and organizations (e.g. NGOs, CBOs) have become deeply entangled with urban governance, state institutions, and supra-local bodies (Smart and Zerilli n.d.) .  Drawing on field research on the intertwining of informality with legal and not-so-legal activities in several locations in the urban Global South (Philippines, Cameroon, Guatemala, Mexico, and Hong Kong), the participants in this panel use their insights ‘ from below’ to raise questions about norms, conventions, and laws.
From diverse vantage points, all the papers contend with competing ideologies of  legality and illegality regarding space and economic activities beginning with B. Lynne Milgram’s discussion of a proposed redevelopment of a public market in Bangui City, the Philippines.  Jose Munoz’ continues this discussion with reference to Ngaoundere, a city in northern Cameroon where informality is getting incorporated into public contracts.  And Walter E. Little explores the contentious relationships between building regulations and public regulations in the World Heritage city of Antigua in Guatemala, revealing contradictions between local urban spatial governmentalities and transnational urban informal logics.  Jose Carlos A. Aguiar takes us to Mexico in his discussion of ‘pirated’ music and movies, focusing on complicated processes of circulation involving the informal economy that are creating new spatial forms of illegalities under the influence of global capitalism. Finally Gordon Mathews introduces Chunking Mansions in Hong Kong where traders from Africa and South Asia come to purchase China-made goods for resale in their home countries.  As a society, Hong Kong upholds “ the rule of law” while tolerating extensive smuggling and counterfeiting.  Taken together, these papers cast rich light on diverse forms of illegality that are shaping local and global informal practices, resulting in a vast mesh of extra-legal practices that are challenging “the rule of law.”


  • B. Lynne Milgram (OCAD University, Canada)
    Repositioning Used Clothing Sales from the Edge: The Politics and Legality of Street Vending in the Philippines

    In countries in the Global South, urban marketplaces host a vibrant mix of permanent and ambulant trade functioning as distribution hubs, provisioning residents and offering viable livelihoods. Increasingly however, Southern governments adopt neoliberal development frameworks embracing a vision of urbanization that promotes centrally-controlled and ‘boutiqued’ marketplaces. Here, markets may be arbitrarly relocated and older buildings enabling flexible space use may be replaced with more prescriptive premises, dramatically disrupting livelihoods and long-term commodity flows. Marketers, however, resist the dismantling of their customary supply networks by opening up interstitial spaces and forging innovative relationships with other traders and city authorities, but through channels that state parameters may not deem “legal”.
    I engage these issues by investigating the proposed redevelopment of the Baguio City Public Market, northern Philippines, the regional hub for fresh produce and tourist goods. In 1995, the Baguio City government chose a private Manila developer to modernize the Public Market. As the developer did not consult market traders, the latter, anticipating rental hikes and loosing their premises, launched a series of civil law suits and appeals, and repeatedly used their produce displays to block market-area streets – all of which continues to thwart city redevelopment plans. Such initiatives, on the edge of legal action, traders argue, promote their rights as citizens to maintain and diversify their livelihoods. I argue that the disjuncture between the state’s and marketers’ conception of what constitutes legal/illegal action emerges here when competing ideologies clash over access to urban public space, cultural citizenship rights, marketplace modernization and urban provisioning.

  • José Maria Muñoz (University of Edinburgh, Scotland)
    Making Contracts Public in Cameroon

    During the last decade in Cameroon public contracts have received considerable legislative attention. The creation of a Public Contracts Regulatory Board (2001), the enactment of a new Public Contacts Code (2004) and a myriad of decrees, ordinances and circulars have been supplemented by well-publicized nationwide campaigns and workshops aiming to raise awareness of the new rules and procedures. Heavily influenced by the government’s international partners, these initiatives have explicitly attempted to incorporate the diverse and dense realm of informality on which public contracts rely into practice. In 2006, for example, the government published a list of 160 “bad practices” in public contracting. On the one hand, the list was an acknowledgement that the legal “repressive apparatus” was “not operational” and that law enforcement in this domain was “neither effective nor systematic”; on the other, the list offered both decision-making officials and public contractors a fresh start.
    This paper explores how officials and contractors in Ngaoundéré, a city in the north of the country, negotiated these ostensible but far from irrelevant changes in formal rules. The paper focuses on construction contracts established between 2003 and 2005, a period during which Ngaoundéré was the target of a European Union-funded program of urban renewal. I pay particular attention to the ways in which the critical features of city’s landscape—schools, government buildings, network of streets, roads and markets, and water and sanitation infrastructure—were understood by the protagonists of the public contracting sector.
  • Walter E. Little (University of Albany - SUNY, USA)
    Façade to Street to Façade: Negotiating Public Urban Spatial Legality in a World Heritage City

    All UNESCO-designated urban World Heritage sites, public urban places are strictly regulated. In Antigua, Guatemala, this includes building façades and streets, as well as the actual use of these public places. Homeowners and businesspersons are subjected to strict building codes that indicate architectural styles, paint colors, and building materials, in order to preserve or simulate urban 17th and 18th century Spanish coloniality. Building owners, however, challenge codes and regulations by using unapproved paints, signs, and building materials. At the same time, vendors, tourists, local residents, and others further contest regulated public spaces by behaving inappropriately. Vendors sell goods on public streets rather than designated marketplaces. Tourists drink in public and smoke in non-smoking areas. Residents modify building façades to accommodate cars and open walls to effectively blend home-based businesses with the street. Locals and visitors, alike, disregard traffic rules and noise ordinances, parking, driving, and honking their horns as they please.
    In this paper, I explore relationships between building regulations and public space uses to discuss how legality is effectively negotiated. Such behavior is common in sprawling urban megacities of the Global South, rather than in World Heritage sites like Antigua. However, irrespective of heavily regulations and surveillance, including a collective interest to maintain the city’s Spanish Colonial architectural style, urban public space legalities are contested through the building construction and economic and social practices. Such practices, I argue, are embedded in the contradictions between local urban spatial governmentalities and transnational urban informal logics.
  • José Carlos Aguiar (University of Leiden, The Netherlands)
    Illegality Mesh: Global Circulation and the Spatial Entanglement of Criminal and Informal Activities in Urban Latin America

    Circulation is more than mobility or trade, it gives shape to long-term relations and transforms society.  In the context of global neoliberalism, new commodities have emerged that transform the economic an political relations within society and between regions. Blank CDs from China and Korea supply the market for ‘pirated’ music and movies in Latin America. In Mexico, more than 400 million pirated CDs are illegally copies every year and sold across the country and, through transnational smuggling networks, reach as far as the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. ‘Fake’ designer bags and clothing manufactured in China represent a booming niche in he street economy of the region. These activities have far-reaching impact on the local economies, livelihood of urban populations, state policies, and challenge scholarly definitions of the informal sector and illegality.
    Piracy in music and movies or retail of fake fashion can only be understood as unintended consequences of global neoliberalism. These phenomena, territorialized in the informal sector, constitute new forms of criminality and challenge the rule of law. To what extent are the different illegal economies related to each other? What do these circulations reveal about the social construction of illegality? In the paper, I introduce the concept of ‘illegality mesh’ to explore the spatial entanglement of shadow and illegal activities in the informal commerce in urban Latin America.  I present ethnographic material gathered in San Juan de Dios market in Guadalajara, Mexico, to discuss Asia-Latin America circulations, the informal sector, and the creation of new illegalities under the influence of global neoliberalism.
  • Gordon Mathews (The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)
    Where the Global South Comes to Buy: Informality and Illegality in a Developed-World 'Neoliberal Paradise'

    Chungking Mansions is a dilapidated 17-story building in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district, where traders from Africa and South Asia come to buy China-made mobile phones and other goods to take back to their home countries. This trade is massive—I estimate that 20% of the mobile phones now used in sub-Saharan Africa have passed through Chungking Mansions—and largely illegal, since it often involves copy goods smuggled across the Chinese border to Hong Kong and smuggled again into traders’ home countries.
    Most trade in sub-Saharan Africa and much in mainland China is under the radar of the law, which is sporadically enforced.  But Hong Kong is a developed-world society upholding “the rule of law.”  Why, then, does Chungking Mansions exist?  One reason is that once police enter the building, the word spreads via mobile phone—vendors conceal their wares, and illegal workers vanish, never to be found.  A second reason is that Chungking Mansions is seen as an enclave of the developing world in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong police prefer not to bother much with it.  A third reason is that Hong Kong takes pride in being “the freest economy on earth,” a neoliberal paradise.  What goes on in Chungking Mansions is simply “neoliberalism without the law,” and is tolerated. This may perhaps be a fairer form of economics for the world’s poor, unbound by the restrictions of the developed world’s customs procedures and copyright laws, but also leads to massive exploitation of its own.

Discussant: Alan Smart (University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada)



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